Scent-sational Holidays

It’s no wonder I focus so much on sensory detail in my writing workshops (and in my writing) since I naturally key into sound and scent. I was reminded of this as I decorated for the holidays. It’s not just the tradition of listening to Christmas carols while we decorate either.

musicalMost of my ornaments and decorations trigger childhood memories, especially those items given to me by my mother, so decorating turns into time for nostalgia. But this year I realized that many of the ornaments make sounds–bells are most common–and I have more than a few decorations with wind-up music boxes that play tinny versions of Christmas carols. Many of the decorations also include potpourri or scented candles. I recall my college days when bayberry candles were a staple of gift giving and I still buy that scent for holiday candles.

This year, as I miss my father, I find myself also missing my mother and have been flooded with memories of her holiday preparations. These began with baking (and freezing cookies) in early November. While we were at school, she began baking and decorating dozens of pinwheels and sugar cookies. I still love the smell of entering a house and smelling the mild scent of crisped sugar, nutmeg and vanilla, with undertones of chocolate. There were always nibbles of cookies (which she claimed got broken or burned) as after-school snacks.

pumpkinpiesAs Thanksgiving neared, the scents of apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, and spices from pies and quick breads greeted us after a long day of math, science, social studies, reading, and holiday crafts. But my favorite days were those a day or two before Thanksgiving when the tang of tart cranberry sauce and brown sugar and cinnamon sticky buns wafted from the kitchen.

cookiescoolingAs December’s snow and chill took hold, holiday preparations continued but the scent of baking now mingled with the odors of Thanksgiving leftovers and hot, nourishing but easy meals such as vegetable soup or beef stew. They simmered all afternoon while Mom wrapped gifts to hide under her bed and at the back of her closet. Progress made daily for holiday magic to happen.

By the time school let out for Christmas break, we children were banned to the basement to play, and it was the perfect opportunity to sneak frozen cookies from the freezer in the corner. While I served as lookout, my brother peeled back the plastic cover of Mom’s massive Tupperware container and nabbed a few cookies. We shared them, breaking off pieces and savoring the chewiness the of mouth-thawed treats and tried to find the willpower not to sneak another and another. Oh, she always noticed that at least a dozen cookies were missing (by the time she pulled them out late on December 23rd), but it never prevented Santa from arriving to deliver presents to the cookie thieves.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Though I’ve updated the traditions of which cookies and quick breads to bake, I do make sure to have a pot of soup simmering in my slow cooker and fresh dinner rolls rising and baking as I put up the tree and untangle the lights. Sausage, carrots, and lentils mingle with the yeasty scent of rolls and the lingering aromas of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon as well as the tinkling of glass bell ornaments. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

So, when you’re writing, pull out the memories and use them as a springboard for ideas and events in your current project. Even if you’re writing fantasy fiction, consider what holidays your characters celebrate, how they react to them, what their happy (or unhappy) memories about them are, what they would change if they could. And don’t forget to focus on sounds and scents as you write those scenes.

Happy Holidays, and happy writing!

Advertisements

Write Through the Holidays

The holidays have arrived. Allow me to wish you a most merry holiday dash! For many people, CharlieBrownTreemyself included, the holidays herald the added stress of a longer to-do list, too little time, and frustration at fitting in writing time. When I was still working full-time and freelancing (instead of writing full-time), it was even more stressful because I’d offer myself an early gift of making more time to write. Disaster. Over the years, and especially since transitioning to full-time writing, I’ve learned to balance writing and all the holiday prep using four guidelines:

broken-orn First, back off on your expectations (and this applies to non-writing parts of life, too). This is NOT the time to set outrageous goals to get your family to support or encourage you as a writer. Be realistic. If you normally make time to write four days a week, aim instead for two or three days per week during December. You have twice the work load with holiday shopping and prep (especially if you’re hosting family for dinner or celebrations).

Second, make a list of writing-related activities and target achieving those instead of adding word count to your work-in-progress. What is one thing you can do daily (or four times a week, or whatever your goal) to make progress with your writing? Items for this list might include, reading, exploring publishers, finding authors similar to your project (for the pitch letter), drafting a project summary or cover letter, making outline notes, or even thinking about how your character will face the next obstacle. These are all related to writing and your current project, even if some do not include putting words to paper. For example, reading articles about writing craft in a magazine or on a website about will help you with your writing after the holiday prep is completed.

Third, keep a notebook with you. When I was starting out, I wrote magazine articles so I kept a notebook with me at all times, making notes and jotting ideas based on my experiences with family and friends. An article about what women do while men watch football? Tips for faster clean up to get out of the kitchen and back to the gathering? Ideas for occupying little ones during “boring grown-up talk”? I recorded them all, without judging the quality or feasibility. (Those decisions were made later.)journal Likewise, I noted mannerisms and details that could be used to make fiction characters come alive.

Four, journal more frequently. This is still my trick for making writing progress during the holidays. I faithfully wrote daily in my journal (though I frequently skip days at others times of the year). This gave me the chance to clear ideas from my head and record plot and scene summaries for current writing projects. It also served as a way to put words to paper on a regular basis, even if I only wrote a few paragraphs. After the holidays it’s easy to look at these summaries and plan, then get back to a regular writing routine. Like working out, it was easier to get back into full swing because I kept the muscles warmed up with daily short writing.

If you do not normally journal, now is a great time to take it up. At the very least, jot thoughts and ideas in a notebook for use later. It may provide an added “gift” of creating a regular writing routine to build from after the holidays.

HappyHoliday

Into the Holiday Spirit with CreativiTEA

What do you do when you’re not into the holidays? I know I have a good reason, but my lack of enthusiasm was bugging me. I’d also had many writing friends bug me to host another of my “teas” — a social gathering so we could talk writing and get creative. I’d done these the summer before last and called them  CreativiTEAs. They were a hit. And I enjoyed getting creative in making the plans.

So, to help motivate myself to decorate for the holidays, I planned a holiday tea. I created deadline pressure just to get it all done in time. It worked, and I had fun putting out “new” decorations, including a centerpiece my mother made (which we found while clearing out my dad’s condo). Compliments on the table plus the decor boosted my spirits.

Mom's centerpiece added to the dining table decoration.

Mom’s centerpiece added to the dining table decoration.

I also put out more candles. I love candles, though in our home growing up they were mainly used as holiday decoration. Finding a boxed set of new 300-light indoor/outdoor clear Christmas lights was also a boost. Something different to string for the season.

But, the most important part of my CreativiTEA was not the food everyone brought and passed. Nor was it the talk about our creative process or best times to tap into the creative flow. It was the writing exercises we did. I had decided to make this tea a “prompt party.” As we did the exercises we made impromptu changes. “Hey, let’s time our writing.” I pulled my phone out to use the stop watch feature. Talk about writing under pressure! But it was fun.

One of the first prompts was easy: We wrote a “winter holiday” related word on a slip of paper and every two minutes I pulled a slip from the bowl and announced the word. We continued writing, trying to incorporate it into the story “in progress.” A  joy to hear the results from each person. Each of us had snowmen incorporated but only one writer gave hers a Florida twist — it was a sand sculpture. Everyone agreed her “draft” could be shaped into a viable story given the time.

Results and story prompt objects from December CreativiTEA

Results and story prompt objects from December CreativiTEA

The next prompt was pulling an item out of a grab bag and incorporating it into a story. I’d selected some holiday-related items from this icebreaker exercise I always use in my writing workshops. “I have an idea!” someone said. “Let’s pass the page to the next person after a few minutes.” We did, and each time we passed, the goal was to include our grab bag item into that story. What fun to listen to each story at the end. Another exercise result which I’ll rework into a short story to send out.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

So the prep and decorating for the tea forced me to decorate and make my house presentable. Now, I’m looking forward to some quiet time stolen during the holiday celebrations to rework my stories and send them into the world.

Happy holidays and creative wishes to all!

Insights on Aging from Charlie and Algernon

I’m plagued by thoughts of aging lately. Not so much in myself, though I’ll admit to moments of decrepit muscles and wormy memory. No, I’ve been shocked by changes in people around me. Perhaps it’s from having watched my father decline during the past year, but as neighbors return for “Season” I’m surprised that they seem much older and less spry. Because they are dressing younger and trying to act younger, my guess is they have aging on their minds too. It’s unsettling. I’ve always believed that you are truly as old as you feel and members of my family have been assumed much younger due to physical fitness and energy.

So where does this anxiety over aging come from? I’ve found clues in recently rereading Flowers for Algernon,  Daniel Keyes’ Nebula-winning novel. (Actually, the story has probably exacerbated my anxieties.) I had to read the novelette (which won the 1960 Hugo award) several times while in school. But I’ve finally read the novel, a goal ever since reading the book Algernon, Charlie, and I by Keyes about the writing of this award-winning story.

A writer's journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing "Flowers for Algernon."

A writer’s journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing “Flowers for Algernon.”

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the flowers are for the grave of a lab mouse named Algernon. Algernon was the successful subject of an experiment combining neurosurgery and a combination of enzyme and hormone injections to triple his intelligence. At least the researchers thought his results were successful. That’s when they decided to test it on Charlie Gordon, a young man with an IQ of 68. Within a few months his intelligence surpassed that of everyone involved in the research. Not until Charlie and Algernon are “displayed” at the annual psychological convention does Charlie realize a major flaw in the experiment.  By now his intelligence has peaked and Algernon is showing signs of decline. Charlie races against the time he has left to find a solution only to realize that the decline he will face is in direct correlation to the rapid increase in his intelligence. During the course of not quite eight months Charlie triples his intelligence and then returns to an IQ of around 70. The only problem is this time he holds a hazy understanding that the people around him whom he used to think of as mental giants are not as smart as he thinks they are. Unlike before the operation, he knows that when they joke with him they are really making fun of his low intelligence.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

As I read this novel I considered what it must be like to go from docile acceptance and contentment in a simple life to super-intellect marred by an inability to relate socially or emotionally with others. One of several problems Charlie faces is finding no one to talk to since even the brightest could not sustain conversations with his font of knowledge. Yet, how is this different from aging? Not simply the mental decline which may show itself in senility, but even the slower response as an octogenarian gathers thoughts before responding during conversation. Or, the slower movements septuagenarians develop to maintain balance and avoid minor injuries.

Charlie begins to stumble and must “remember” to walk carefully to avoid tripping — “knowledge” he regains in order to survive again with a double-digit IQ. I also think of Charlie having a sense that he used to know things, such as remembering reading a particular book but not recalling what it was about and opening it to discover he recognizes only a few words. Do the elderly have such feelings? Do they also have a sense that they used to know about a topic but cannot articulate facts or add to a discussion about it? I believe I saw such realizations cloud the eyes of my father during the last year. Not that the elderly have below-average intelligence but those feelings of “knowing” they “used to have” sharper reflexes, better recall, something to add which is new and thought-provoking—those realities of aging must make them at times feel like Charlie with a sense that what he once had is lost and he knows it.

The most touching part of the story is watching Charlie try to retain his knowledge but watching it slip through his fingers. Like sand in an hour glass, youth slips away. We can do nothing about it, really, except perhaps slow it, try to make it move at a different rate than it does for others. In the end, aging is a natural part of the cycle of life. Whether we work hard, play hard, or both, we move through the process of growth and decline and are left with a “knowing” that we accomplished something, that we lived our life. For some, like Charlie, we can feel happiness despite not being unable to recall why.

It’s interesting that children want to age, be older. I recall trying to look and act older all during my teens. And then, when we finally have that wisdom and respect we seem to seek in our youth, we feel the need to try to reverse time’s influence by dressing and acting younger. This cycle of life is strange indeed. Thanks to both Charlie and Algernon, I think I have enough insight to alleviate my anxieties. Here’s to living in the present and enjoying the knowledge, wisdom, and physical abilities we have in this moment.

The Nature of Characters

Another season and semester of writing workshops is drawing to  a close. It’s been especially hectic during the past five months and my body is demanding a real break this summer. I’ve structured my schedule for more writing time and more time to wander and generate ideas.  I decided I need more time outside, enjoying nature, because that recharges my creativity. Of course,  I can’t wait to get started.

So, yesterday I wandered. I visited a local park to take a break from my writing and workshops. Today I’m wondering about what I saw when I wandered. It will filter into two stories I’m working on. I’ve come to accept that this is my writer’s brain at work.

Here’s what I saw. This park I visited has a fantastic nature center and fabulous pathways to wander. Few people realize that it’s a natural filtration system in the middle of a city. I wandered off the walkway to the nature trail that meanders through trees and other vegetation. Eventually I came upon a grouping of Ficus trees with I thought were incredible. Some looked like carved and woven “figures” but these were actually formed by the Strangler Figs wrapping the trees. Like cloud gazing, I let my imagination go and saw lizards, a tree nymph, alligators and other figures.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree. This is what I see when the vine “strangles” the Ficus.

As my friend and I walked on, my relaxed mind began weaving what I’d just seen into a fantasy story I’m working on. This W-I-P is actually a book but I’m still in the planning stages. A scene came to me in which my main character (MC) will need to find magically dormant creatures that everyone assumes are somewhere in the Forbidden Forest (or some such place) and awaken them. No one realizes that these creatures are “hidden” in plain sight on the very paths they walk daily. But my MC will eventually figure this out.

Later, on another path we wandered, I was startled when a breeze caused a patch of plants and fish tale palms to move. I thought it was a giant preying mantas! It sort of looked like one. It was green with palm fronds moving up and down as the insect moves its pinchers. While my friend laughed, I realized I’d let my imagination soar. We did spend a little time looking at the patch and imagining shapes as we’d done with the strangler figs. Now ideas are forming for a plant-based species in my SF story I’m working on.

So, today I am wondering what it would be like to be a walking plant. How would I eat? What would I eat? How would I move? I’ve already figured out how my MC in that story will meet her first plant-based creature. It will be meditating (praying?) in a garden and my MC will try to pick a “flower” from its head thinking the poor creature is actually a flowering plant. A nice subplot to show my MC’s lack of experience and ineptitude in her multi-species environment. (She’s had a lot of mishaps that show how naive she is so this could build on it.)

I’m eager to put my wonderings to the test at the computer. First, I’m wondering where my wanderings will take me next. It’s going to be an inspiring summer!

Watching Wild Life

I absolutely love my condo! It’s bright and sunny so I never need to turn on lights during the day. It faces northeast so I receive sun both morning sun (in the front where my office is) and evening sun (in back.) My favorite part of a “writing day,” meaning I’m home working on projects, is eating breakfast on the lanai.

Breakfast includes entertainment. I get to watch the activity on the 2nd tee-off for the golf course in this community. Most of the time this is simply the squirrels in the white pines and palmettos. Often it includes a variety of waterbirds in the pond. Sometimes it even includes golfers and their colorful language that drifts across the fairway. (During season it’s often quite entertaining! More than a few times I’ve held my breath expecting a serious slice off the tee to hit the building, but the tall trees protected it.)

So, I’ve been wondering: how is it that so much wildlife survives on this golf course? I’m glad it does, because it means the course doesn’t use as many chemicals as others in this area. The egrets, heron, turtles, and–yes, even the the bats–inspire me. And I’m relieved to see that the crushed concrete they added two summer ago to edge the pond didn’t kill the turtles after all.

Now, if only we could do something about those wild golfers.

In Search of the ‘Perfect’ Journal

Questions continue about writers and journals. Since it’s a tool for your writing, it can be used in whatever manner helps you. Some writers simply keep a notebook to collect quotes, ideas, intriguing names, and record bits of dialog or scenes. I have one of those, too, which I take with me to the park, pool, and beach. Other writers think of a journal as a book with entries to collect thoughts and ideas or recollections.

Along with dwelling on the purpose and content of the journal, new writers ask me what kind of journal to use. Again, it’s your personal preference. Whatever works for you.

Any notebook will do for your writer’s journal. You can use a spiral notebook or composition book from the school supplies section at your favorite store or visit the bookstore for a selection of blank books. The variety is impressive, from lined or unlined sheets to various sizes (and
shapes). The important thing is that you feel comfortable with the book so you’ll enjoy writing in it often.

You might even prefer to use your computer to journal. Many writing friends insist this is the best method because of the “search and find” features on most word processing programs. I prefer a portable, handwritten journal. If this is your choice, too, choose a writing instrument with as much care as the journal itself. Do you want to hear the scratching of a pencil or marker on the page or feel the glide of a gel-ink or fountain pen? I like the feel of smooth, thicker paper and the fast, flowing ink of a Roller Ball. But, I also prefer different colors to help me designate different days at a glance. The choice is yours.

Whichever method you choose, be sure to keep the first few pages blank. Record favorite writing exercises or prompts on those opening pages. You’ll be able to quickly find writing prompts whenever you want to write during unexpected spare time. Each time you complete an exercise,
you’ll gain something more from it. Draw from these completed exercises, just as you’ll glean from experiences recorded in each journal entry in developing writing ideas.